On this day in 1975, American Great Lakes ore freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinks in a gale-force Lake Superior storm, losing all 29 hands aboard. When launched on June 7, 1958, she was the largest ship on North America’s Great Lakes, and she remains the largest to have sunk there.
For 17 years the Fitzgerald carried taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota, to iron works in Detroit, Toledo, and other Great Lakes ports. As a workhorse, she set seasonal haul records six times, often breaking her own previous marks.
Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets, with Captain Ernest M. McSorley in command, she embarked on her ill-fated voyage from Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, on the afternoon of November 9, 1975. Enroute to a steel mill near Detroit, the Fitzgerald joined a second freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson. By the next day, the two ships were caught in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet high.
The Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian waters 530 feet deep, about 17 miles from the relative safety of Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; the Fitzgerald could have made the short distance in just over an hour at her top speed. Though she had reported being in difficulty earlier, no distress signals were sent before she sank; Captain McSorley’s last message to the Anderson was “We are holding our own.”
Her crew of 29 perished, with no bodies recovered. The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown, though many books, studies, and expeditions have examined it. Borrowing Gordon Lightfoot’s words, as well the tale can be told,
“They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters . . .
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘gitche gumee’
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.”